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Frank Bruni joins Terry & Mary Ann

Inside College Admissions Game

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Posted by Mary Ann

I soaked up Frank Bruni’s book; I read every word. Because I have been through this crazy college rat race not once, but twice – two sons, two rounds of admissions, and then, two sets of tuition bills.

Where You Go Is Not Who You'll BeI am a veteran, and like Bruni, I now believe that the mania surrounding this process is ridiculous. It twists both parents and kids into little knots of anxiety. One unfortunate outcome of this is that you spend the last couple of years of your kid’s time at home stressing over what college they are going to get into when, I see in retrospect, you could be savoring the time you still have with them.

I think that in Where You Go is Not Who You’ll Be, Bruni eloquently demonstrated that it’s not where you go to college, though it’s certainly important to match the college with a student’s abilities and interests. It’s what you do once you get there.

Given the general level of angst over this topic, you will not be surprised to learn that a lot of books have been written about it! You will not be surprised to learn that I have read many of them!

The single most helpful book I read during my own kids’ odyssey through the college admission process was not the U.S. News and World Report’s “best colleges” ranking. It was not the Princeton review. It was a funny, bittersweet memoir by a father about his family’s journey through the admissions process, called Crazy U: One Dad’s Crash Course in Getting into College.

Crazy UAndrew Ferguson is a writer for The Weekly Standard, the same conservative newspaper where David Brooks got his start. He is smart and funny, and in this book he did a brilliant job of illustrating how this process torques you up, sucks all the money out of your pocket and, at the end of it, guess what? The kid you have loved and treasured for 18 years or so leaves home, and your heart has a big hole in it.

One reviewer called Ferguson a cross between Tom Wolfe and Mark Twain, and that is not far off. His kid is an average student, and Ferguson is terrified that his son will get lost in a process that favors overachievers and self-marketers. But he doesn’t let his angst get in the way of good reporting – he presents fair and balanced chapters on the way colleges use rankings (despite professing to loathe them), and about the dominion the Scholastic Aptitude Test holds over kids’ futures. Parenthetically, my husband and I like to say that we hope the College Board, which administers the SAT and most other tests of its ilk, has put up a plaque with our name on it in the lobby, we’ve written so many checks to it over the years. Then again, given how many check-writers are out there, it would have to be a pretty big lobby.

Ferguson’s book is funny and heartfelt, and if you are in the middle of this madness, it will help you regain some perspective.

price bookcoverAnother book that was more investigative, and pretty shocking its revelations, was 2006’s The Price of Admission: How America’s Ruling Class Buys Its Way into Elite Colleges – and Who Gets Left Outside the Gates by Daniel Golden. This was a blockbuster when it came out in 2006. Golden won a Pulitzer for the Wall Street Journal for his reporting on this topic, and the book is an expansion of his reporting.

Golden’s book was very well researched and presented some irrefutable conclusions: that in spite of many schools’ admirable efforts towards affirmative action, each year a substantial number of students dubbed “development cases” are admitted. A “development case” is college-ese for someone whose parents may be able to give the school a lot of money. It was frightful to read about this and to realize how many slots that might otherwise have gone to worthy affirmative action prospects – or for that matter, middle class kids – were reserved for kids whose parents were in a position to give the school a golden handshake.

This book made me mad, but it was eye-opening; it helped me realize that no matter how smart and capable my kids and their friends were, college admission is not entirely a merit-based process.

I don’t want to say that college is not worth it – I went to a liberal arts college and am glad I did. Liberal arts education has taken a beating in recent years, because of its rising costs and because so many jobs in the current market seem to demand an orientation towards computer science, engineering and other sciences.

defense bookcover

Fareed Zakaria, a well known columnist and TV personality, has just published a book called In Defense of a Liberal Education. It’s not long, but it’s personal and persuasive – in it, he describes how he resisted pressure by the engineering and test-crazy culture of his native India to attend a liberal arts college, and why he is glad he did. He makes the case that a wide base of knowledge, clarity of writing, creativity and an ability to think hard and deeply are as important in the long run as being career-ready.

Entirely in the opposite camp is Kevin Carey, author of end of collegeThe End of College, a book that just came out that contends that the entire college model is outmoded.

He argues that, in order to keep getting kids and parents to write the big checks, colleges have resisted innovations in information technology that would make college-level courses a lot more accessible to many more people. Now, I don’t want a world where every college student takes every course online – there’s a lot to be said for the kind of stimulation kids get from both their teachers and peers in college. But I also know that college is becoming less affordable and more out of reach for the majority of American youngsters. If we want a democracy and a healthy economy, we need to figure out an alternative to the status quo.


Our interview with author Frank Bruni on Well READ will air beginning July 17.  Check your local public broadcast station listings and World Channel for times in your area.

Read more from Mary Ann every week in the Seattle Times and on online. Find her column here:  Mary Ann Gwinn | Seattle TImes.

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  1. Fasna

    Hallhlujae! I needed this-you’re my savior.

    posted 2 years ago
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